Morocco's first spy satellite fuels regional tension with Algeria

Morocco's first spy satellite fuels regional tension with Algeria
Blog: Impoverished citizenries are paying the price as each country races to the stars, writes Habibulah Lamin.
3 min read
Will Morocco's satellite heat up the regional power race? [Getty]
Morocco launched its first spy satellite last November, joining a new regional space race with neighbouring Algeria.

Algiers launched its first satellite in 2000 in association with Russia. It now has three satellites and a space agency, which the country specifies as scientific-driven centre to counter natural disaster.

Morocco says its space programme will improve its farming sector.

But beyond these reasons, there lies a longtime regional power race as the two states present competing ideologies and interests.

Morocco has been France's right hand in the region, while history gets in the way of any warmness to Algeria-France relations.

Perhaps this explains why the two states' moves are frequently determined by their allies. While Algeria's first satellite was made in Russia, Morocco launched its own from a French Arianespace centre.

Russia and France were therefore the winners of the first bout in this new competition between Algeria and Morocco.
What could muddy the waters even further is the trend to build walls along the Algerian-Moroccan border

Trading Economics, a website specialising in government military expenditure, estimates that Algeria's military spending increased to $10.65 billion in 2016 from $10.4 billion in 2015.

This represented an all-time high in the country's history - despite the oil price crisis and a fiscal consolidation plan that the government has imposed on subsidies - which according to the World Bank is paying off, with real GDP growing by 3.1 percent in the first quarter of 2017.

Morocco has long been behind Algeria in this marathon. Its military expenditure fell to $3.7 billion in 2015 from $4 billion in 2014, Trading Economics reported.

Morocco's agricultural production shortage has affected the kingdom's ability to increase unemployment rates above 25 percent among young people, while severe poverty is still intransigent, especially in the Rif region where recent political turmoil sees many still demanding social justice.

But what could muddy the waters even further is the trend to build walls along the Algerian-Moroccan border.

Morocco has constructed a 100km barrier on its eastern border with Algeria, and Algiers has been reportedly building a high-tech wall as well.

The diplomatic crisis continues unabated, with ministers accusing their regional rivals over terror threats and hashish smuggling.

The borders between the two countries have officially been closed since 1994, when Morocco decided to impose visas on Algerian nationals after an attack on a hotel in Marrakech - which Rabat blamed on Algeria's secret service.

But the tensions have been bubbling away far longer than even this. The Western Sahara is still the central issue in relations between the two countries, with Morocco blaming Algeria for the existence of the Polisario Front.

But Algeria argues that it supports the armed movement in accordance with its principles to stand for "the oppressed and just cases worldwide".

Consequently, as the status of Western Sahara remains unresolved, the advantage of an upper hand in space is sought by the two adversaries. Its importance mainly lies in military monitoring, especially that each side is a stone's throw from the other.

By detecting military movements, a response could be more effective. Morocco has built a minefield that has divided the Western Sahara territory, metres away from Polisario fighters' encampments.

But the two nations' focus on a hugely costly industry to further entrench their rivalry could land their economies in trouble - and ordinary people are likely to be the victims of this enduring political hostility.

Habibulah Mohamed Lamin is a journalist formerly based in the Western Sahara refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. He has worked as a translator and is director of Equipe Media Branch, a group of media activists covering Western Sahara. His work focuses on the politics and culture of the Maghreb.

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